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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:20 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Northern Ireland Office) 9:20 pm, 8th January 2020

I congratulate Carla Lockhart on her excellent and powerful maiden speech and on making a clear and pronounced contribution to this House on her first outing. I am sure we will hear a great deal more from her in the months to come.

We have had a debate in which there has again been the consensus that we all want to see. We all want to see the devolved institutions restored and the agreements respected and seen through. I am grateful to Kirsten Oswald, who spoke for the Scottish National party, and to the Opposition spokesman, Tony Lloyd, for their support for that position.

As ever in these debates, we have heard a wide range of opinions. In the previous debate, I was getting beaten up very heavily by pro-choice colleagues on the Opposition Benches. On this occasion, perhaps the voice was slightly louder from the pro-life people, who I am happy to meet to try to address their concerns further, to ensure that we take this forward in the best possible way and in a way that is respectful of the concerns in the community in Northern Ireland and more widely. We have to recognise that we are under a legal duty under section 9 of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Act 2019, and we will be continuing to work to put in place the regulations by 31 March, providing access to abortion consistent with the CEDAW report.

The hon. Member for Rochdale asked what we could do if the Executive were restored. If that were to happen before 31 March, we would welcome discussions on the regulations that will be made, and questions on implementation, which of course will be taken forward by the Northern Ireland Department of Health. As these are devolved matters, any reform after March 2020 can of course be considered by the Executive and the Assembly, subject to such legislation complying with convention rights and the usual Assembly procedures. This is yet another of those issues where, if we want the concerns and views of people in Northern Ireland to be properly heard, we must ensure that the institutions are in place.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the legacy system, as did my right hon. Friend Mr Harper. I cannot give them specific dates at the moment, but I am happy to come back to them on that when I can. We want to work rapidly on this issue, and we are clear that the current system for dealing with the past has not been working well and needs to be reformed. We will continue to work with partners to seek better ways of dealing with legacy issues, to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors and to give veterans the protections that they deserve.

The hon. Member for Rochdale also asked about the historical institutional abuse. I am grateful for his support and that of the Opposition, as well as the support from across the House, in getting that legislation through before the election. It was important that we did so, and I know that he moved heaven and earth to ensure that we could do it, as did my Secretary of State. The Northern Ireland civil service has now established a project board, and work continues at pace to deliver the scheme. The head of the Northern Ireland civil service met the victims and survivors groups on 17 December and set out the timetable for redress. The application process for the redress appeals is open from the end of March 2020. I hope that provides some update on the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of business rates. Having been a territorial Minister in both Scotland and Northern Ireland, whenever I travel I hear concerns about business rates—as indeed I do in my own constituency. These are fundamentally devolved matters that need to be dealt with by the devolved Administration. He mentioned that there had been a recent valuation, and that there were concerns about that. I absolutely recognise that, and the best place for those concerns to be addressed and taken up is in the Northern Irish Assembly. That is yet another factor that means we want to get the Assembly back up and running.

On nurses’ pay, I have complete sympathy for what people are saying about how unacceptable it is that people should have to be out on strike. It was the decision of the previous Northern Ireland Executive to diverge from parity with England and Wales on health workers’ pay, but the UK Government stand ready to support a deal that will help to resolve the pay dispute. Once again, if we can get an Executive in place, we will work with them to ensure that that can be done, and that the urgent issues to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean alluded regarding the health situation in Northern Ireland are addressed.

As to my right hon. Friend’s further point about the legacy system, we will look at legislation at the earliest opportunity. It is clear that legislation to improve the legacy system in Northern Ireland will need to be agreed by the UK Government and have the support of the Northern Ireland Executive, which once again comes back to how critical it is that we get an Executive.

Kirsten Oswald rightly spoke about the urgency and importance of talks to restore the institutions and pillars of the peace process, which everyone in this House is united in supporting. She was also rightly clear about the devolved nature of health in Northern Ireland, which is one of the reasons why we want to continue to lean into the talks and get devolution back up and running.

My hon. Friend Fiona Bruce made a passionate speech, speaking with her usual knowledge of this issue. She urged us not to go as far as the consultation suggests, but it is a consultation and a listening process, and we will engage with the responses before we come out with any formal Government response. I am happy to meet her to see how we can take on board her concerns, and I will write to her about any further people who have been involved in the consultation beyond those that I mentioned. Part of the reason why I mentioned those groups in my speech was because the Secretary of State talked in our previous debate about meeting Church groups, and we had objections from some Opposition Members that we were talking to Church groups but not necessarily women’s groups, so I wanted to put some of those groups on the record. She will recognise that it is important that we have also engaged with the royal colleges and medical professionals on those issues.

Returning to the fantastic maiden speech by the hon. Member for Upper Bann, she was clear about the strength of her community and her constituency’s attractiveness to tourists. I look forward to visiting, and I certainly hope to be able to make many more visits when I am in Northern Ireland in the near future.

We heard concerns from my hon. Friend Simon Hoare and my right hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean about what could happen on 13 January if we do not deliver a successful outcome to the talks. It is clear that none of the options is attractive. We want to ensure that we can get the Executive back up and running and get an Assembly sitting in Northern Ireland to deal with such issues. That is why I share the hopes of many in the House that this is the last debate we will need on the 2019 Act.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House
has considered the Report pursuant to section 3(5) of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which was laid before this House on Thursday 19 December.